I’ve always said that cycling is the most beautiful sport in the world. As a racing cyclist and coach, I witnessed the tactics and strategies of bicycle racing firsthand, and I’d like to share with you some of my favorite lessons.
Cycling’s popularity has exploded in recent years, and in some parts of the country is replacing golf as the vehicle for making important deals (the average recreational cyclist in the US has a graduate degree and makes $100K+), which I witnessed first hand when I lived in Boulder, CO.
With this year’s Tour De France wrapping up in Paris this past weekend, it is a great opportunity to have a strategic look at the world’s most unique and largest free sporting event.
The Tour has persisted for over 100 years, despite World Wars, changing technology, globalization, and a decade of doping scandals. What can we learn about success from the Tour?
In the Tour, riders can save 30% of their energy by letting other riders break the wind in front of them. How can you save effort in your life by the work that others have already done (What platforms make things easier for you)? The Internet is a great example and the sub platforms like Shopify, eBay, app stores, YouTube, etc., allow for much easier value creation by individuals. Personally, as a podcast host, it is a great advantage now that most phones and cars come preinstalled with podcasting apps. With Google and Facebook investing in virtual reality, I expect some excellent drafting opportunities to come soon in VR.
On the flip side of drafting, the riders breaking the wind are valuable assets, and teams pay handsomely for riders who can. The lesson here is that whenever you create a new marketplace or downstream benefit for others, you will be rewarded. The Tour itself lets other industries ‘draft’ off of it by creating secondary economic value in tourism, food, television, brand sponsorships, newspapers, clothing, etc.
“To finish first, first you must finish” – Rick Meares
If you can avoid the crashes, illness, mechanical issues, and other rider’s mistakes, then you have taken the first big step towards winning once the key moment arrives. Likewise, the incentive to not give up until the race is over was witnessed on stage 14 of this years race, when Steve Cummings came from a long way down to win the race in the final seconds against two French favorites who were preoccupied with watching each other too closely.
In the era of the internet millionaires and get rich quick schemes, overnight success can still take a few years–be prepared to outlast your competitors. Considering that bachelor’s degrees take four years to achieve, it might take that length of time or more to become proficient (and a high earner) in your field.
A good reputation takes a long time to build up and only moments to lose. The doping reputation in cycling from the last era will persist for some time. Likewise, individual riders that have a positive doping test will struggle to regain credibility, and that bleeds over onto the rest of the competitors. Every Tour de France winner for the next decade will come under suspicion simply because they are winning.
Be mindful that every action you take will effect your reputation and that a string good events will not undo one a bad one. Cheating works well, but everything will come crashing down eventually (I’m looking at you Lance Armstrong), so if you want long-term success, do it the clean way.
Cycling is a rare sport in that the athletes salaries are paid by sponsors rather than ticket sales, and thus attention and ROI are key metrics for investors. As PT Barnum said, “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” Some outspoken directors or riders stir up controversy intentionally with the things they say, and it drives attention to their teams and sponsors.
The public 200 years ago might have lined the streets to see returning heroes of a military campaign; sports stars are our modern day equivalent. In the Tour, the heroes have a reputation that they will show up every day ready for a fight (Peter Sagan and Roman Bardet stand out in this years race) and are always found where the action is.
In your life, how can you place yourself at the heart of the action where it will make a big difference (Get on TV? Write a book?).
Effort and Recovery
Tour de France racers have an intense workload and focus during each stage and attempt to recover as quickly as possible in between. IN training, we say effort + recovery leads to improvement. Both parts of the equation are necessary.
If you are also able to challenge yourself and push hard to get better at your craft, the effort will inevitably be taxing, and you better be able to recover enough to bring your best efforts each day.
For the Tour riders, sleep is a hugely important part of recovery. I’m a huge fan of getting enough sleep (my college cross country teammates used to call me sleepy), and studies show that you remember more (equating to less total studying time), are less fat, and more productive overall (to name a few) when you get enough sleep. In addition to sleep, unplugging, meditation, and relaxed meals can provide a competitive recovery advantage.
As Cal Newport says in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, deliberate practice (of the rarest and valuable skills) is much more useful for rapid improvement than practicing things you are already good at, but also more taxing. The difference in winning the Tour and missing the move can happen in just 30 seconds. By leaning into discomfort and practicing challenging yourself, you can break away from peers at your level in the brief moments when it counts.
Create an experience
Live events like the Tour bring people together in ways that the Internet cannot. Physical location and interaction have yet to be replaced. Cycling is always free, and there are rabid fans that line the roads and get to run alongside the riders and will travel days and sleep outside just to see their heroes.
We are in the weird habit of paying people to play our games for us; cycling is one of the rare participatory spots. If you are creating a physical experience for people, you can create meaningful memories, and memories are the commodity of human existence.
The details make the difference
In the early days of cycling, you could become a winner based on effort and natural talent–simply ride lots, eat lots, and have good genes. These days, that training is the bare minimum required to be a professional. To win the Tour in 2015, you now need a team of support staff including mechanics, masseuses, aerodynamic scientists, physiologists, mental coaches, team managers, nutritionists, and a long-term plan.
Gains of less than 1% are the difference between winning and losing. In life, you need to gather a team of experts around you as well. Who will be your coach, strategist, recovery specialist, etc.? Athletes are focused on optimizing their performance, and they have a clear idea of what a successful outcome looks like. Your process should be to clearly define what success would look like, and how you can optimize that process by bringing in the right team.
Leadership and Specialization
Only one rider can win each stage, and the leadership of a team can change depending on the terrain and the qualities of the rider. When a team works well together and with the right strategy, the chances of their leader winning are greatly enhanced. A good leader in cycling and in life must know how to get the most out of his helpers. A leader must also earn the right to lead by finishing off the hard work oh his teammates.
When you are building your team, think carefully about complimentary talents that will add up to greater than the sum of the whole. In the Tour, a well-rounded team has a sprinter, climber, breakaway rider, road captain, roleur, domestiques, and general classification rider. If the nine riders have nine skills, the team has nine skills. Similarly, if your circle has ten people specializing in ten things, effectively everyone in the group has access to all ten talents.
Leadership is a challenge. Whether it is from our parents, teachers, peers, or bosses, most of us are used to being told what to do, and thus many find it easier to support a leader than be one. Just remember that when you get the chance to be a leader, people want you to lead them, and you must be firm and decisive and fully deserve the role.
Strategy can trump strength
Cycling is one of the only endurance sports where a less fit but tactically superior rider may win. Personally, this is my favorite part of racing, because I knew I always had a chance if I kept my wits about me. In running, the fittest runner will usually win, whereas in cycling, you can use psychology, timing, preparedness, cunning, and improvisation to outwit your opponents. Patience and creative solutions are two of the best arrows in a winning cyclist’s quiver.
This is the same for life–so many of us are preoccupied with the urgent (yet unimportant) events in life like answering emails or texts as they arrive, that someone who can be patient will save energy and focus for important moments. I have seen riders sneak away in the final moments of a race, when everyone is getting ready for the final battle–so knowing when to preempt others or act contrary to the popular opinion (Warren Buffett’s investing strategy or Elon Musk and Tesla come to mind) can give you an unassailable advantage.
I’ll probably always be a cyclist because it keeps me fit, gets me outside, lets me implement strategy, and puts me in contact with influencers in my community. And I hope to keep enjoying the beauty and lessons that can be extracted from such a complex event as the Tour De France.
Photo: Flickr/ Bas Kers (NL)